Deeplight by Frances Hardinge
Pan Macmillan, hb, £12.99
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
For centuries the gods of the Undersea ruled the islands of the Myriad with terror. They were worshipped and feared by the islanders who painted eyes on their ships and threw sacrifices to the gods to appease them. Then, without warning, the gods turn on one another, causing widespread destruction and chaos on the islands until all the gods were dead. Thirteen-year-old Hark lives in the world post-gods, telling stories he has gleaned from older islanders to tourists for quick and easy money. But then a chance find turns his life upside down, a god heart. Is it possible the gods can come back? And if they can, should they? Is the past best left in the past? Has the world already changed too much to go back to what it was?
Told through the point of view of Hark, a happy-go-lucky lad trying to make a living for himself off his wits. He is immediately bright and engaging, he doesn’t complain about his situation, he finds his way to make the best of where he is. A charismatic character, Hark draws people to him even if they see through him, he’s an irrepressible force of nature.
Hardinge’s world-building is first-class. From the first page, we’re sucked into a world that is concrete, bright in colour and folklore that is realistic and captivating. There are no large information dumps, the past is woven in with the present as Hark learns more and more about the gods he holds dear in his heart even though he wasn’t alive when they were born. The stories of the past drive the novel forward as much as Hark’s physical and emotional discoveries.
The characters are complex and multi-faceted. All characters have their own motivations and whether they work together is based on whether their motivations take them in the same direction or not. Even the antagonists have understandable motivations, garnering sympathy for their situation, as the consequences of a single decision or act take their lives far from where they imagined they would be. There are no true villains, just people trying to get on in the world which makes them more realistic, more accessible, and strengthens an already powerful story. This is my favourite fantasy of the year.
Ultimately, this is a story about change, positive and negative changes, irreversible changes, and accepting those when they happen. Hark must let go of the poisonous relationships of his childhood that hold him back. The islands of Myriad have to let go of the gods who often destroyed whole villages on a whim. It’s about letting go of the past, not letting it dictate our futures, an uplifting message people need to hear regardless of their age.